Over the past decade, Shia LaBeouf has wrestled with his mental health in the public sphere. His strange, occasionally fascinating, performance art pieces were often interrogations of his fame and tarnished public image (after multiple arrests related to substance abuse). Wearing a paper bag over your head that reads “I am not famous anymore” to a red-carpet premiere could read to some as a self-indulgent cry for attention, and it’s hard to hear those cries when they’re coming from a person who’s achieved more success before the age of 18 than you likely ever will in your life.
So Honey Boy — a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age tale written by LaBeouf — is at serious risk of feeling like narcissistic misery porn; it draws a direct line between the actor’s legal troubles and his upbringing at the hands of an abusive father. Whether or not you buy that narrative is on you. Just the same, Honey Boy is a surprisingly moving act of self-therapy, anchored by the best performance of LaBeouf’s career as his father (named James in the film). The screenplay doesn’t take a convenient route by casting James as a one-note villain but rather a deeply damaged individual, someone doomed to pass on his trauma to whoever’s closest to him. He’s as pathetic as he is monstrous.
The movie’s timeline alternates between two crucial periods in the life of Otis, LaBeouf’s fictional proxy. In the first, 12-year-old Otis is the star of a hit children’s show and lives with his dad in a rank motel outside of Hollywood. James is a walking laundry list of toxic personality traits, an abrasive, childlike ex-con suffering from PTSD after a tour of Vietnam. As a recovering alcoholic and registered sex offender, James’ only means of living is through his son’s financial support, and that realization has left him increasingly bitter.
James verbally belittles Otis at every opportunity, and every so often those disparaging remarks can turn into slaps. At times, it’s hard to watch. Impossible to ignore, however, is LaBeouf’s performance. He’s an open wound, desperate to come across as a dude who’s just glad to tag along with his son although his insecurities and rage constantly bubble to the surface.
Lucas Hedges plays Otis at 22, whose status as the lead of a major action franchise is threatened when his most recent DUI lands him in rehab. This storyline isn’t quite as compelling as the childhood sequences, and that’s mainly because adult Otis’s road to recovery isn’t as complex a conflict as his relationship with his father. It also doesn’t help that we more or less know the outcome, seeing as present-day Shia appears to be happy and healthy.
Honey Boy is director Alma Har’el’s first narrative feature, having previously directed such documentaries as Bombay Beach. Honey Boy takes the same naturalistic visual approach as many modern documentaries, using soft lighting and digital grain to instill a sense of intimacy. That look is starting to grow a bit overplayed in indie dramas, but it fits the material here nicely.
While Honey Boy’s aesthetic may not be anything new, the reason for its existence feels quietly profound. The last scene makes it apparent that the creation of this movie is itself an act of forgiveness. LaBeouf is facing traumas of the past head-on by recreating them and pondering their impact on who he’s become, for better or worse. Instead of resentment, LaBeouf chooses to leave his story on a note of grace. It’s cinema therapy in the truest sense.